Controversy Continues to Swirl Around Award Winning Gitmo 'Murder' Story

May 24th, 2011 10:38 AM

A controversial article from Harper's Magazine, which won the National Magazine Awards' prize for reporting, what many consider the Pulitzer Prize for magazines, continues to be plagued by accusations of factual inaccuracy. A Monday article from AdWeek further suggested that the award had more to do with the issue's politics than the article's merits.

The piece, which suggests a possible conspiracy in covering up murders of inmates at Guantanamo Bay, was supplied wholesale to the folks at Harper's, who went to press despite a lack of hard sourcing for the story. In fact, the evidence undergirding it was apparently so thin that even the hard-left New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh, who has crusaded against a number of prominent elements of the war on terrorism, including Guantanamo, would not touch it.

So a piece that won an award for reporting involved no actual investigation by the outlet that published it. Serious questions about its factual accuracy remain. The ideological parity between Harper's and the American Society of Magazine Editors, which administers the National Magazine Awards, suggests political considerations at play. That the Harper's editor who approved the story had suggested "coordinat[ing]" news coverage to then-candidate Obama's benefit on the infamous Journolist only reinforces that view.

The story traced what can only be described as a military conspiracy to kill three inmates and Guantanamo bay, and then pass off their murders as suicides. AdWeek gives a rundown of the two stories - the official line offered by the military and that told by Scott Horton in his Harper's piece.

Whether or not the allegations are true, the fact that large number of reporters declined the scoop - and it was a huge one - due to what they perceived as factual inaccuracies or inconsistencies that remained in the final Harper's article demonstrates that this was not a bang-up reporting job.

Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News’ chief Pentagon correspondent, was another of those journalists. He worked on the story off and on for four months, during which time he reviewed “thousands of pages” of documents, interviewed Horton’s main source, and “talked to at least a dozen people.”

“Ultimately I just didn’t find the story credible, quite frankly,” Miklaszewski says. “I devoted a lot of time to it, and my conclusion was that it just didn’t seem possible that that many people could have been involved in a conspiracy and to have [the killings] remain secret. It stretched all credulity, I thought.”

Hersh confirmed to Adweek that he had dug into the story and dropped it too. A New York Times reporter was also approached by the parties who’d been pushing the allegations of homicide and cover-up at Guantánamo, a person close to the situation says.

Only after the big guys passed was the story shopped to Horton. He won for reporting, but in fact the story fell right into his lap, factual flaws and all.

“We couldn’t really believe it when the piece came out,” one of the reporters who looked into the story says. “I can’t believe Harper’s, I really can’t.”

These latest revelations lend weight to previous accusations of factual inaccuracy made by a number of prominent critics, chief among them Slate's media reporter Jack Shafer. Shafer wrote when the story broke:

Horton should be grateful for the relative silence greeting his 8,000-word article. While rich in detail, the piece never comes close to making its case that prisoners Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani may have been murdered at a secret CIA installation at Gitmo, nor does it present persuasive evidence to show that multiple branches of the military, the FBI, the Justice Department, and two White Houses have deliberately concealed the true nature of the deaths.

Horton, a lawyer and human-right advocate, lends unwarranted credence to the eyewitness testimony of Guantánamo guards-turned-whistleblowers and conflates hearsay and speculation into "evidence" while blithely ignoring facts and statements collected by the government. Time and space don't allow me to knock down every dubious assertion in the Horton piece, so I'll limit myself here to his grandest claims.

Also on the case was First Things blogger Joe Carter, who had this to say about Horton's piece:

It would be tempting to go line-by-line and pick apart all the flaws in Horton’s piece. Fortunately, that is not needed since anyone who reads the article carefully will see so many obvious holes and find the case is so unpersuasive that it hardly needs rebutting. On every point, Horton accepts without question rumors or hearsay that might imply that the prisoners were murdered. Yet he dismisses out of hand the overwhelming evidence that the deaths were suicide.

In a follow-up post, Carter wrote:

Scott Horton has concocted one of the most elaborate and extensive conspiracy theories to ever be published in a once reputable magazine. His claim is that the murder and cover-up of three prisoners at Guantanamo Bay Prison involves hundreds of people, ranging from enlisted military men to the current President of the United States.

Carter spent considerable time dismantling the various claims made by Horton and other sympathetic media voices. HIs posts, and Shafer's, are well worth reading for the details of the case against Horton's accusations.

Like Shafer and Carter, Monday's AdWeek piece accused Horton of "conspiracy building, favoring the evidence that supports the conspiracy view and minimizing the evidence that does not." A post at Business Insider responded, saying that "there is some truth to those words. But you could also say the same thing about most of the reporting done trying to take down Horton's story."

While I can't agree with that characterization of Shafer's and Carter's work, the fact remains that the "take-downs," unlike the Harper's story itself, were not candidates for or recipients of a prestigious award for original reporting.

That is the point that has stirred so much controversy. There have been hundreds of factually-questionable articles about the Guantanamo Bay detention center and other staples of the war on terrorism. But Horton's received an award for reporting, when by all appearances, he did very little of his own reporting work, and instead simply printed a scoop handed to him wholesale.

Journalists are often given scoops that they then print under their own bylines. It's standard practice. But one would expect the recipient of an award for reporting to have provided a factually airtight account of what had taken place. Instead, Horton, who is himself a liberal human rights activist, ignored massive amounts of evidence that detracted from his position (and he did have a position), and instead focused like a laser on the hearsay accounts of those who lent weight to that position.

Harper's is by all accounts a liberal publication. The editor in charge of this story, who has since defended it, was a conspirator in his own right when he proposed that members of the infamous Journolist "co-ordinate a message of the week" to the benefit of the Obama campaign.

I have often argued that one can be ideological and accurate, and that claiming total political detachment is simply being dishonest with one's audience. But media handwringing about the tendency of "ideological" media to skirt the facts in favor of an agenda seems well suited to Horton's piece. But instead of receiving widespread condemnation - as would, say, an Andrew Breitbart - Horton won an award for his factually questionable conspiracy theorizing.

It's hard to see anything but ideological parity behind that decision. Gitmo is a lightning rod for liberal opposition to Bush-era foreign policy and the war on terrorism generally. A story this damning about liberals' primary target for "torture" and "illegal detention" caterwauling was simply too good to check. ASME is, after all, the same organization that created an entire award category for the best magazine cover depicting Barack Obama. It's clearly a left-wing outfit.

But ASME and the magazine have stood by the award and the story, respectively. "Scott's article brought about much debate," a Harper's spokeswoman told Yahoo News. "Good reporting often stirs controversy and we stand by our piece."

ASME's CEO wrote in a Monday blog post that his organization stands by the award:

To protect the confidentiality of the judging and to shield judges from any attempt to influence them now or in the future, ASME does not identify judges by category, discuss the selection of finalists and winners or debate the merits of any article submitted for a National Magazine Award. The judges who chose "The Guantanamo 'Suicides'" as the National Magazine Award winner were highly experienced and unquestionably impartial. On behalf of ASME, the administrators of the National Magazine Awards stand behind the decision of the judges.